Wine Ratings, Explained


Photo by Joe Roberts

If you ever want to start the equivalent of wine geek war, mention the topic of wine ratings online in any wine forum or nearly any wine blog, then stand back and witness the virtual carnage as the pro/con debates ensue. To understand why wine ratings cause such a fervor among wine lovers - and how ratings might be able to help you as a wine consumer - one has to have a bit of background.

Before wines were rated on a 50-100 point scale (a 15-point scale is often used in Europe), which was introduced by Robert Parker, Jr. in The Wine Advocate (more on him in a minute), wine criticism was largely viewed as not actually being very critical. Wines were often touted in the press based on producer pedigree (particularly when it came to the wines of Bordeaux) rather than actual performance, leading to under-achieving wines being sold for high prices. The advent of consumer-oriented critics in the late 1970s and early 1980s changed the scene, put many long-standing wine houses on notice that their history would no longer carry their sales, and arguably ushered in the longest stint of high quality wine at affordable prices that history has ever known.

That’s the good part about ratings. The bad part is that most of us have it all wrong when it comes to wine reviews and how they should be used.

Since many reviews are based on a numeric scale, our brains want them to be 1) permanent, 2) fungible, and 3) objective. Sorry to bear bad news, but wine reviews are none of these. Wine - particularly fine wine - is a moving target, and the more complex and potentially long-lived (in short, the better) it is, the less permanent any wine rating will prove to be. A great wine will change flavor and aroma several times just when poured in a glass and left for an hour, let alone a decade aging in the bottle, so it’s tough to get a good assessment of how great a fine wine is unless a critic spends several hours (or even days) with it, which few of them do.

In terms of fungibility, forget it; one person’s 95 is another’s 91. And this is actually a good thing, even though it sends the logical sides of our brains into a tizzy. What a wine rating really tells you is exactly where a critic thinks the wine sits on a continuum of worst wine in the world to best, with higher usually being better. While the fact that ratings aren't really all that equivalent between critics seems illogical, it’s actually a boon for you as a consumer. If you find a critic who highly rated wines that you previously enjoyed, then you have found “your guy/gal” and know that you can follow that critic’s other recommendations with high confidence.

Finally, pure objectivity is impossible when it comes to reviewing any product that is fundamentally a subjective experience. Think about it; enjoyment cannot possibly be calibrated exactly or precisely between different human beings. If you want an exercise in frustration, try taking five random people and have them “rate” a work of modern art (if the numbers they come up with are even close to one another, we will owe you a beer!). Wine is no different, and while some critics might write as if they are wine-tasting robots, they are all human (okay, okay, technically we’ve not verified that one hundred percent, but you get the point), and their subjective taste preferences will at least subtly affect their wine ratings. This is all the more reason why you should first seek to find a critic that tastes like you do, rather than simply buy a wine based on how many points it got from multiple critics.

Here’s a quick primer on some of the more influential wine rating sources (each has multiple critics, but generally they rate in similar fashions within the same outlet):

Wine Spectator

If ever there was a publication tied to the romanticized version of the wine lifestyle, this is it. It’s most famous critic is James Laube, and the best way to think about the wines they like is to picture yourself at a steakhouse. If it would go well with high-end steakhouse restaurant fare (or with cigars after dinner, or for sipping during rides on your private yacht), chances are good the wine will do well in WS. Think big, bold, and expressive.

The Wine Advocate

Founded by an amateur influenced by Ralph Nader, The Wine Advocate is the brainchild of Robert Parker, Jr., who became the most influential critic of any type in any field worldwide. While it doesn’t boast a large readership compared to Wine Spectator, its ratings hold immense influence over importers, collectors, distributors and retailers. TWA largely prefers wines that are opulently fruity, powerful, and generous in their complexity.

Wine Enthusiast

Wine Enthusiast began life as an adjunct to the catalog business founded by Adam Strum, but has seen rising influence in recent years thanks to its populist approach and accessible writing. WE’s writers cover specific wine region “beats” and tend to score wines a bit higher than WS and TWA, with their critics often finding aspects that they like in wines across a wide price spectrum. If you’re into experimentation and are a glass-half-full person, look here first.

International Wine Cellar

Former Food & Wine magazine columnist Stephen Tanzer is the editor and publisher of International Wine Cellar, which has become the wine geek’s go-to wine rating source. Tanzer’s tough-grader mentality permeates the publication and its ratings, and he’s fond of taking the red pen to wines he finds overdone. If you’re a fan of harmony, elegance and refinement in your vino, IWC is the place for you.


Google a specific wine, and chances are good that you’ll find aggregate reviews high in the results list. Founded by former Microsoft employee Eric LeVine as a means to keep track of his own expanding wine cellar, CT is now the largest source of independent/amateur wine reviews in the world. Think reviews for the wine set; entries with only a few reviews might seem a bit skewed or unreliable, but those with dozens and dozens of entries are self-policing and often contain notes from people who taste thousands of wines per year. If you trust the crowd to guide you to good buys and like to shop in the style, CT will prove a valuable critical resource.


Comments / 0

Published by

a.k.a. Joe Roberts. Dad, wine-writer-guy, wine critic, wine competition judge, author, bassist, free-thinker, & occasional hiney-shaker. Opening up highly-pressurized cans of whoop-a** on the wine industry since 2007. Joe is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and the author of Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings.

Downingtown, PA

More from 1WineDude

Comments / 0